Malaysia’s Got Talent

After decades of struggling to connect with mainstream moviegoers, Malaysian cinema is on a roll, buoyed by three films that each surpassed the market’s previous alltime box office record...

After decades of struggling to connect with mainstream moviegoers, Malaysian cinema is on a roll, buoyed by three films that each surpassed the market’s previous alltime box office record set by Skop Production’s action flick K.L. Gangster in 2011.

The primary catalyst for the resurgence was a strategic decision in 2013 by Astro Shaw, the film production and distribution arm of entertainment conglomerate Astro Malaysia Holdings, to overhaul its entire approach. “ We looked at our strengths and our weaknesses, and then analyzed the gaps ,” says CEO Najwa Abu Bakar of Astro Shaw. “We studied the market locally, around the Asean region, North Asia and Europe and North America. With a better understanding of what our moviegoing audience wanted, we set a new strategic direction.”

Also lifting the buoyant production sector is the Film in Malaysia incentive introduced in 2013, which provides cash rebates equaling 30% of the budget for local films that spend a minimum of RM2.5million ($610,000) and international productions that spend at least double that amount.

 Filmmakers believe in Ola Bola’s box office success.

Dato’ Kamil Othman, director general of National Film Development Corp. Malaysia (FINAS), is confident the momentum will continue: “There is certainly an upswing. Starting in April last year government funding support was placed under the Content Malaysia Pitching Centre managed by FINAS to ensure that good scripts will be developed. FINAS tries to get the interest of domestic and international producers before a project is green-lit. ” (According to FINAS, the number of films produced in Malaysia is up from a low of 39 in 2010 to a peak of 84 in 2014.)

Until the recent spike The Big Sleep could have been the title for the local entertainment industry. “For the last two decades or so Malaysian cinema was too domestic-centric, partly because of the reluctance of the private sector to invest in films and the overdependence on government subsidies,” Othman says. “Local films were generally seen as token initiatives rather than as commercial products. ”

Astro Shaw’s strategy paid off when The Journey, a drama directed by Batu Pahat-born Chiu Keng Guan, took an unprecedented $4.2 million at the cinemas in 2014. That new record did not last long, as Astro Shaw’s Polis Evo, an action movie directed by Ghaz Abu Bakar, grossed $4.4 million in 2015. Earlier this year the firm struck gold again with Ola Bola, a saga set in 1978 about the struggles of a Malaysian football team, which raked in more than $3.9 million.

One big local player is Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, a $130 million facility managed by the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios Group and financed by the Malaysian government’s investment arm, Khazanah. “We are now reaching out to the world and telling them to come to Malaysia to make their next film, ” says Pinewood CEO Rezal A. Rahman.

Global players are taking them up on the offer. Ideate Media (launched in 2013) of Malaysia partnered with Australia’s Essential Media & Entertainment, Ireland’s Telegael and Malaysia’s Lemon Sky on the preschool animated seriesSydney Sailboat, commissioned by Australia’s ABC. Ideate’s slate includes the U.S. drama series Dirk Gently, a coproduction with IDW Entertainment, and Circle of Confusion for BBC America and AMC Studios, and The Island at the Center of the World, a TV adaptation of a Russell Shorto novel, produced for the U.S.’ PBS. Ideate’s most ambitious project is a multiplatform franchise based on Malaysian author Ramlee Awang Murshid’s novels that is being developed with Los Angeles’ 42 Entertainment.

Watch out, Bollywood, here comes Malaywood.


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